Water Conference topics spill over into media, ag, public health and tribal roles in creating water policy

The 2017 Minnesota Water Resources Conference offered a variety of water topics to the record-breaking 787 attendees who gathered amid the fall color display along the Mississippi River. Tribal water management, discovering the source of harmful microorganisms in our recreational and drinking water and using media to bring problems and solutions to the public were just a handful of topics offered.

The conference opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award, which is given annually to individuals whose lifetime accomplishments contribute to improving Minnesota's water quality.  For the first time, two awardees were recognized for their water resource contributions. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Assistant Commissioner for water policy Rebecca Flood presented the awards, stating that it was impossible to choose between the two award candidates. Kent Johnson is a Metropolitan Council aquatic biologist who oversees the river monitoring program and its network of stream monitoring stations. Under his leadership the program has grown and thrived, and Johnson is “respected for his integrity, intelligence, and respect for others.” Flood then introduced Dan Engstrom, of the St. Croix Research Station of the Science Museum of Minnesota, who is well known for his “lifelong love affair with mud,” with his research focus on sediment analysis and mercury cycling. Also highlighted was Engstrom’s study of sediment and phosphorus loading to Lake Pepin, documenting the effect of agriculture and other land use on the quality of Pepin’s water.

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America Public Media correspondent Amy Skoczlas Cole, pictured here with WRC Director Jeff Peterson, uses her media platform to inform listeners about environmental issues.

America Public Media’s Amy Skoczlas Cole was Tuesday’s morning plenary speaker, presenting Communicating Science for Action. Cole explained her passion for getting the word out about environmental issues. An MPR poll showed that only 15 percent of Minnesotans think that the state has a water resources problem, while a look at the list of impaired waters in the state shows that much restoration and prevention work needs to be done. Skoczlas Cole asked her listeners to be curious: build relationships with people, find common ground. This creates communication. Be human. Meet people where they are; tell a story. Narratives offer benefits to the listener. Connecting water science to things that are important to people will translate to concern and care about our drinking and recreating waters. Be valuable. Know how you can help your audience and provide hope for the people in the room by showing them what is possible. People need hope for a solution, or they will shut down because of the seemingly insurmountable odds against making a difference. “Hopelessness does not lead to action,” she says. Focus on the possible and put the best science in the right hands at the right moment.

Luncheon speaker former Cargill CEO Greg Page entered the water resources arena to improve the tenor of the water quality and agriculture debate. He reported that after 18 months of “meetings andcronyms” he observed two things: the status quo cannot continue and change will inevitably come.

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Former Cargill CEO Greg Page advocated communication between farmers and environmentalists. "We all have a part to play in water quality." Page is pictured here with Water Resources Center Director Jeff Peterson.

Emphasizing that there are no “righteous” solutions, and warning against imposing a one size fits all agriculture water regulatory policy, Page advocated for problem-solving discussions between the agricultural and environmental communities. Both parties need to understand that solutions will require trade-offs; no one is going to get everything they want. He proposed creation of a farmer maintained data base of the state of agriculture practices in their locality, giving producers a documented voice in the creation of best environmental practices.  “We all have a part to play in water quality management; collectively we can change behavior.”

Professor Mike Sadowsky from the UMN Department of Soil, Water and Climate was Wednesday morning’s plenary speaker, his topic:  Water Quality and Microorganisms: Protecting Recreation and Public Health.

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Mike Sadowsky with water conference co-chairs Jeff Peterson (WRC) and Greg Wilson (Barr Engineering) following his conference presentation about tracking sources of fecal water contamination.

One of the greatest causes of pollution in our waterways is fecal matter. Nature can cleanse itself of smaller amounts of microbes, but is overwhelmed by big spills. The greater concentration of microbes is due to the migration of people from rural to urban areas, which concentrated the disposal of waste, habitat destruction and runoff over impermeable surfaces.

It is often difficult to determine the source of large deposits of fecal matter. Sadowsky points to molecular technology to help track the origin of non-point source fecal pollution.  The sources are many; soil can be a home for E. coli, as well as beach sand, which easily finds its way into the water. Cold-blooded animals are also a culprit. Meta genomics, the study of the totality of DNA in the environment, is another tool for researchers, as the information can be used to match against what is present in animals and what is present in the water.

We all benefit from the E. coli source tracking, as government uses the results to establish TMDLs and BMPs, protecting our beaches, drinking water and overall public health.

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe tribe regard for water is that of a relationship with a relative, the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Women, as life-givers are considered the keepers of the water, said Nancy Schuldt, Fond du Lac Water Projects Coordinator. The spiritual

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Fond du Lac water projects coordinator Nancy Schulte (pictured here with conference co chairs Jeff Peterson and Greg Wilson) described the Ojibway tribe's reverence for water as the lifeblood of Mother Earth, and the tribe's efforts to repair damage done by years of homesteading and farming.

connection that the Ojibwe have with water resources has fueled hydrologic research on the reservation, as they seek to remediate damage done to wetlands by homesteaders, study the effects of sulfates on wild rice cultivation, and train the next generation of water stewards through ongoing science youth programs in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

This rigorous water management program has allowed the tribe to engage in off-reservation water arenas, giving them a voice on issues such as restoration of the St. Louis Estuary, and conservation decisions regarding the BWCA. The tribe has also been instrumental in restoring the lake sturgeon population through stocking, tagging and tracking. The ongoing mining debate is a vital one to the Fond du Lac tribe as previous mining has affected water quality and wild rice management permanently, so the tribe is very engaged in how future mining will be managed and permitted, as wild rice restoration and protection is a vital part of native spiritual life.

In closing, Schuldt shared ideas moving forward in building relationships with native peoples: find common goals, invite tribes to the table at the start of projects; respect the culture and the “other ways of knowing” and respect the history and experience that the tribes have with land and water.